BOOK REVIEW: TITLE: Know the beginning well: An inside journey through five decades of African development




PUBLISHER Africa World Press, Trenton, New Jersey, 526 pages


The World Bank’s operational culture carved for it an austerity and project development image. A core of economics- enhancement of humanity through wars against poverty was seemingly secondary. Political economic choices- the reality of guerrilla fighters in power, manipulations of electoral vote and fundamental rights were overlooked in the beginning.

Now, there are engagements in models of poverty reduction programmes. Not that the technocrats, the best concentration of minds anywhere in the world were insensitive but were simply overwhelmed with multiple development challenges.

Some candid and tractable explanations are offered by a very qualified alumnus practitioner- KY Amoako, a development economist with fifty years of World Bank and other professional work in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. He left the Bank at a Director’s rank to become the Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). In his 526-page book of sixteen chapters, Know the Beginning Well- An Inside Journey Through Five Decades of African Development is a proverbial antidote of history. If you know the beginning well, the end they say, will not trouble you.

KY, as he is well-known in the international circuits was influenced by his father, Ghana’s first President- Kwame Nkrumah and the well-known economist, Robert Gardiner. Gardiner earlier served as an Executive Secretary of the UNECA and the first African to deliver a BBC Reith Lecture Series- partly KY’s reason of wanting to be an economist. It was Gardiner who also mentored Kofi Annan (he wrote the foreword to the book) at the UNECA.

Having become an economist, KY was of the world and became a prime participant in the fashioning of for instance, the Structural Adjustment Programme policy discussions. He worked with the Zambian leader- Kenneth Kaunda as resident representative of the Bank in Lusaka, in Kenya and Uganda as the latter was in dire need of foreign exchange for import of basic needs like medicine and long-time development infrastructure. Once in a nine-hour meeting on economic reforms with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his cabinet, he told them, “you are not talking sense”. It was more out of desperation and a desire to do good than a typical Bank PhD economics major from Berkeley.

KY Amoako cites the Bangladeshi economist and founder of the microfinance bank, Muhammad Yunus as saying: “the Bank’s conceptual framework was never designed to fight poverty…fluctuating focus on poverty issues came in the form of ‘humanitarian add-ons” …the people hired at the Bank were not hired to eradicate poverty from the world but hired for professional qualities that may not, in fact, translate into crafting and carrying out anti-poverty strategies.”

KY partly disagrees as at the time there was still a way out of in-built hindrances at the Bank. In East and Southern Africa as in Latin America, he met with brilliant local experts who were not against reforms in macroeconomic fundamentals- inflation management, exchange rate calculations, interest rate, currency devaluation but with hawks and socialists (sometimes in majority) within mostly unelected governments and working with trade unions, popular uprisings invariably suspended reforms.

On the field he allowed local initiatives and ownership. Unable to speak Portuguese in Brazil, respect for local talents was more important.  This participatory approach unlike detested and arrogance-tag of Bank officials worked as he bore an olive branch and redeemed an institutional bile.

The UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali decided on what was a transition in career for KY which reflects in the narration: KY and nobody else should take up the UNECA position at a point of near collapse. A general economist, his career had led him to all the matters of his profession as in the moving one – The Case for Gender Equality framed around “the moral and economic imperative for investing in Africa’s women.” He had promoted this strongly in Brazil at the Bank’s Department where women were in the majority.

The personal experiences of KY and wife, their three daughters and KY mother’s begins it. KY and wife could have conversations with KY’s mother on a visit to Ghana; the grandchildren would need an interpretation from their parents. At once, the issues of rural setting, class divisions within Africa not to talk of women education and inaccessibility, are clear in gender economics.

At the end, major reforms took place at the UNECA and KY’s global stature grew. Serving more as the intellectual think-tank in Addis Ababa together with the African Union, he was central to a web of multilateral policy alternatives and implementation- of The World Bank, IMF, European Union, OECD, the development partners. Within a decade, he was part of most major policy initiatives from the Tokyo International Conference on African Development to the optimism of McKinsey’s Lions on the Move report.

A successful international career is reflected in the book’s glittering endorsements: former President of the World Bank, James Wolfensoh, its former Managing Director and Minister of Economic Planning of Nigeria, Ngozi Okonja Iweala and President of Liberia, Johnson Sirleaf for KY who describes himself as ‘a realistic optimist for Africa.” An “optimist and a pessimist could both be wrong” he once explained in Kigali, “but an optimist dies happier.”

The dream had been brewed in the pot – a Pan Africanist like Nkrumah but of an economic type like Robert Gardiner, the continent’s progress however has not been as sterling. Retrogression in Uganda is because, “Museveni has been for himself” after the initial reforms. Zambia is not better as in other assignments in Venezuela and Peru. His varying optimism in Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Ghana is about leaders and their philosophies.

The career challenges came for him when on the support of the President of Ghana then, John Agyekum Kufuor, he got into the race for the presidency of the African Development Bank. The Government supported KY who was seen by many as the front-runner but whose diplomatic lapses with the ‘non-regionals’ including the Japanese and as a British Government interested candidate, led to his waterloo in Abuja- he lost to the former Finance Minister of Rwanda, Donald Kaberuka.

KY devotes the closing chapters to his founding think tank, African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) in Accra. Set up to fulfil transformative strategies he had hoped to implement if he had become President of the ADB, he brought together top-flights – Yaw Ansu as chief economist and Ed Brown who was resident World Bank representative in Rwanda and over forty other professionals in rated policy work. With a broad horizon KY’s belief is that the creation of the Asian Tigers in East Asia (reduction of poverty from 80% to 18% in a generation) was not a miracle but patient structural transformation which is the inherent lesson for Africa. With varying political beliefs and structures, he again feels the developmental state of Rwanda and a liberal multiparty one in Ghana: continuous and rigours transformation impart of the former and fiscal indiscipline with elections every four years in the latter, do not produce the same results.

This book comes at a time that economists of his generation and today are explaining global situations. Their great master John Maynard Keynes, founding member of the Bank and the IMF and his magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) did much. Keynesism is reinvented in major global economic challenges to this day.

The former Governor of the Bank of England, Melvyn King a devotee of Keynes (Gardiner and KY in thought) studied economics at Cambridge University under Keynes’s apostles. His book, The End of Alchemy- Money, Banking and the Future of the Global Economy (2016) explains the 2008 global financial crisis. It followed Gordon Brown’s, Beyond the Crash (2010). KY worked with Tony Blair on the Commission for Africa and even delivered the Millennium Lectures at Number 10 Downing Street as he did also work with other European leaders. In Africa, he worked with the troika-the leadership of Thabo Mbeki, Olusegun Obasanjo, Abdelalaziz Bouteflika of whom KY stood in their middle in the birth of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and its African Peer Review Mechanism.

NEPAD as perhaps the longest surviving continental policy structure has evolved and is now the African Union Development Agency. Nothing is permanent in policy as long as there is life.

Know the Beginning Well is an interpretative economic and multilateral history with a difference.

*Know the Beginning Well- An Inside Journey Through Five Decades of African Development,

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